August 6, 2021

Dear Medical College of Georgia Friends,

Blood and marrow transplant program celebrates 1,000 patients

When Dr. Anand Jillella was still a medicine intern here in the early 1990s, he worried and wondered about patients who needed a bone marrow transplant having to travel elsewhere to get one. He would stay with us through his residency before going on to do a three-year hematology/oncology fellowship at Yale University School of Medicine and came back here as a faculty member in 1996. Anyone who knows Dr. Jillella knows he collects no dust, and one year later our patients had a Blood and Marrow Transplant Program right here. Today, our program, the only one outside of Atlanta, serves many communities, places like Valdosta, Waycross, Savannah as well as the western part of our neighboring South Carolina, and our team gets rave reviews from all of them. In 2012, the team marked their 500th patient, and in 2017, they did the first transplant for sickle cell anemia. And last year, despite the additional significant stress and restrictions of COVID, became the first year the team completed 100 transplants within one year. This spring they started a CAR T program, where a patient’s own immune cells are engineered to better fight their cancer. “I think it shows how much dedication the team has, the hospital has to these patients,” Dr. Jillella said this week when the incredible team that includes physicians, nurses, clerks, pharmacists, experts in blood and blood components like those invaluable stem cells, celebrated their 1,000th transplant. “I think it shows where we can go from here.” As we shared in June, one place we will go is enabling our pediatric cancer patients and their families who need this lifesaving therapy to also get it right here, now that Dr. Amir Mian is with us.

Dr. Anand Jillella started the 24-year-old program Dr. Vamsi Kota now leads

These days Dr. Jillella, who I must add is also one sharply dressed physician-scientist, is our chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology and director of ambulatory services, network and outreach at our Georgia Cancer Center. Dr. Vamsi Kota, who completed his residency and hem/onc fellowship with us, followed by bone marrow transplant training at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, now leads the transplant program Dr. Jillella started. Dr. Kota came back to us the first time in 2011 after completing his training at M.D. Anderson, but left three years later to join the faculty at Emory’s Winship Cancer Center, which along with Northside Hospital, has the only other bone marrow transplant program in our state. The many of you who know Dr. Jillella, undoubtedly know he has left us and (fortunately) returned a time or two, and he and Dr. Kota, who considers him a mentor, overlapped in some of their time here and at Emory. In fact, one of my worst days here ever was the day Dr. Jillella told me he was going to Emory (and I wasn’t a dean then). When Dr. Jillella came back to us (he says he is here for the long haul this time) in 2017 he recruited Dr. Kota to also come back home. While these two are key players in getting to where we are, they happily acknowledge that this work takes a village.

Both our first and most recent patients are doing well

“Our patients are always the backbone,” Kota said to the small crowd gathered Tuesday on 5 South of the adult hospital, the program’s physical home, to celebrate the milestone. That backbone now stretches from Lauren Jackson from the South Georgia town of Guyton who became our 1,000th patient this week to Wanda Attaway, of North Augusta, our first patient 24 years ago. I am glad to say both are doing well. “How lucky we are to have this level of expertise and this unique set of caregivers here,” Katrina Keefer, AU Health System CEO, noted during the festivities, where essential partners like the Pharmacy, Blood Bank, financial team, administrators, nursing staff and others also   uncharacteristically stopped for a few moments to just celebrate. Dr. Jillella acknowledged that our patients have the toughest job, and particularly the nurses make it easier for them. “I just remember when I started we all had black hair,” joked charge nurse Terence Leegan who has probably helped take care of all 1,000 patients. Also rightly thanked were people like Dr. Sandy Helman, the longtime, now retired director of the Histocompatibility Lab (now run by Dr. Valia Bravo-Egana) and her team, who helped match donors and patients, a crucial step in successful transplantation. Like Sheila Tinsley, manager of clinical lab operations for the Blood Bank, and her team who work through the night if needed to collect and process stem cells, which make the red blood cells that carry oxygen, platelets that enable blood to clot and the white blood cells that fight infections, and which all can be destroyed by cancer or its treatment. The Pharmacy team, also on hand whenever needed and now led by Dr. Joshua Wyche, was also among those thanked, including Dr. Rusty May, a familiar face from back in the day who directed the pharmacy when Dr. Jillella was getting the program rolling. Dr. May is now assistant dean for extended campuses for the University of Georgia College of Pharmacy and his many new jobs include strengthening relationships with us and our campuses throughout Georgia. That sounds like a great prescription. Great to see you Dr. May. So was Dr. Abdullah Kutlar, director of our Sickle Cell Center, who has been here since the early 1980s and was there in the early days of the bone marrow transplant program as well to help take care of our patients, our backbone.

Dr. Lara Stepleman named inaugural associate dean for faculty success, inclusive excellence

As I referenced earlier, it’s a sad day when talented people leave us (even if they do come back), and I am pleased to also share that Dr. Lara Stepleman now has an enhanced role in helping us keep our invaluable faculty. This psychologist, who I am also happy to share is a fellow New Jerseyan, took off like a rocket when she was named Director of the Office for Faculty Success in July 2018. In that new job she gave our faculty face time to talk about their jobs, their frustrations and their futures and to find the best ways to optimize their success and happiness. Like our bone marrow transplant program, she got rave reviews. I am pleased to share that Dr. Stepleman is now our first associate dean for faculty success and inclusive excellence who, again in team mode, works with my office, our Faculty Senate and MCG Office of Faculty Affairs, led by executive vice dean, Dr. Vaughn McCall, to help ensure a culture of mentorship and ultimately success, which translates to good people staying satisfied and here. Dr. Stepleman’s office will also help us recruit more good people and help ensure that our faculty better reflects the diverse state we serve. When we do lose someone, she works hard to help understand why so the ripple stops there. Congratulations and thank you Dr. Stepleman. I encourage our faculty to reach out to you to better ensure their success and MCG’s.

Senior Bryanna Moppins serving on USMLE Student and Resident Advisory Panel

The best leaders know how to listen and how to help others get where they want and need to be. I am proud to share that Bryanna Moppins, a senior at our partnership campus in Athens is doing that in her role as one of 15 members of the United States Medical Licensing Examination program’s Medical Student and Resident Advisory Panel. As the name implies, this panel, which got its start in 2018, provides the USMLE feedback directly related to the essential role of the USMLE in periodic testing to ensure the next generation of physicians will be skilled and principled in the all-important care of patients. Dr. John Francis, associate dean for student and multicultural affairs at the Athens campus, notes Bryanna’s already significant accomplishments, like serving as president of the campus chapter of the Student National Medical Association and secretary of her class’ Student Government Association. He’s also witnessed interactions between her and her fellow medical students and premed students. Bryanna is a native of Selma, Alabama who grew up in Gwinnett County up Atlanta way. I am especially glad to hear she wants to be a neurologist, and potentially a neuro-oncologist. Thank you again Bryanna for making MCG your medical school and for the outstanding contributions you already are making to your chosen profession.

MCG Medicine magazine will be out next week

Finally today I am also happy to share that the latest issue of our magazine, MCG Medicine, should be in hand and online early next week. This jam-packed issue includes profiles on some of our new neuroscience faculty studying conditions like Alzheimer’s and ALS, a piece on neuro-oncologist Dr. John Henson, that I hope Bryanna will take to heart, and a powerful piece about our strides against suicide, which already ranks among the top 10 killers and continues to climb. Taking on suicide are individuals like master collaborator Dr. Martha Tingen, who has teamed up with leaders in Jones County in central Georgia, to dramatically reduce some of the highest suicide rates in our state, as well as areas closer to home. You’ll also hear more from Dr. McCall, who also is chair of our Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior and an expert of the trifecta of depression, insomnia and suicide, on some innovative strategies to identify those most at risk for suicide. I like having the privilege to read and reflect on the great work of you, the faculty, staff, students, residents, fellows and alumni of the Medical College of Georgia. But I also really like talking with you and seeing you. You inspire me and make me want to be a great leader. 

Please get vaccinated and wear a mask when you are in a confined space so we can get this pandemic behind us.  

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